War is hell. It's especially hellish when the entire world is involved in a conflict that boils down to complicated alliances and diplomatic ass-hattery. So every little happy piece of home helps.
Kangaroos evidently make great battle buddies. A century ago, Australia joined the rest of the British Empire in declaring war on Germany, pulling the country into a global conflict that would claim the lives of some 16 million people, before a peace treaty was finally signed on November 11, 1918. While its troops went to battle on three different continents during World War I, Australia is often remembered for its role in defending the Suez Canal in Egypt. That's where an eye-catching photo of a soldier playing with a kangaroo in the shadow of the Great Pyramids.
The photo looks fake at first glance. Like, why on Earth is there a kangaroo in Egypt? But in fact, Australian troops brought a number of different types of animals from home to World War I. Call them mascots or just pals, these critters helped boost morale and helped Australia show off some of its natural heritage.
The Australian 11th Battalion sitting on the Great Pyramid of Giza on January 10, 1915
The presence of kangaroos and wallabies and the like is especially relevant, because the war was one of the first times that Australia appeared before the world as a nation. After all, the Commonwealth of Australia was only established in 1907. And even though the country was part of the British Empire, the start of the war triggered an explosion of patriotism in Australia. Many Australians naturally came from British heritage, so if Britons were going to fight and die in World War I, so were Australians.
As the unofficial symbol of Australia, the kangaroo played a number of symbolic roles during the war. There were the mascots in Africa and elsewhere on the front. The animal was also invoked in recruiting efforts, most famously during the so-called Kangaroo March of 1915. Even the Australian uniforms were a little bit kangaroo-inspired. Soldiers often wore "kangaroo feathers" on their iconic slouch hats, tucked beneath the left side of the brim which was traditionally folded up. It's also worth mentioning that the kangaroo appears prominent on Australia's coat of arms, which was designed in 1912, just two years before the start of the war. The kangaroo also appeared on various propaganda throughout the ordeal.
"The 'Roo Behind the Gun" Christmas card circa 1916
So it's fitting that the Australians took actual kangaroos with them to war. Some were even kept at military hospitals, presumably to help cheer up the wounded soldiers. And in a very visceral way, the kangaroos even became Australia's legacy after the war. The country donated a number of animals to the Cairo Zoological Gardens as World War I drew to a close. You can probably still go see some of the original war kangaroos' relatives if you go to Egypt. Perhaps poignantly, their bouncy faces are one of only a few positive things that came out of that damn war.
A kangaroo named Jimony and a nurse at the Australian Auxiliary Hospital in Harefield, England